The Word “Guru” in a Wisdom Tradition
In these times, when words can mean anything you want them to mean, the word, “guru,” is used in countless different ways. So, I’m not interested in arguing for a “true” meaning for the word, but wish to comment on its meaning within my Wisdom Tradition, that of Indian Sannyasis.
As analogy, guru is to the intellectual/spiritual gene what mother/father is to the DNA. The name and the blood that is transmitted by one’s biological parents is reflected by the name and tradition transmitted by the guru. That name is significant and “fixes” the individual in a biological family or in a spiritual lineage. As family in the biological sense is very real and goes way back to that original woman in Africa (so they say), a spiritual tradition must also be as real, going way back to the provider of that ancient spiritual gene. It is neither ideology nor beliefs that are transmitted by a tradition, but a way of knowing and Speech that is supported by a vast compendia of oral storytelling.
As an archetype, the guru is much more than the Mentor. First and foremost he is Door Guardian, Dwarpal, Darvish, the Sphinx. The Bouncer. One must get past him in order to enter the Extraordinary World. Entry is not guaranteed and there may be tests, ordeals, and riddles for the disciple, our “Hero,” to endure, while attempting to enter the new world. This Door Guardian stands on the edge of worlds, where they meet on the cusp of things, like a hinge between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between the sacred and the profane, between the Macrocosm and the Microcosm. Once the Hero gets past the Door Guardian, his credentials are established for entering the Extraordinary World, and this threatening Door Guardian becomes his protector.
In the world of a Wisdom Tradition, the Guru tests the disciple, and if found suitable (and that can mean many different things), not only opens the door of the lineage and the tradition, but serves as the patron of the disciple as well. He gives the disciple his name as do our parents – two names in fact, a first or familiar name, and a family name. The disciple inherits the name of his guru, and receives a certain amount of entre within the greater tradition based on that name. Of course, he must strive to keep that name honorable.
In the traditional world there are no weekend courses, in fact, there are no courses at all, unless you want to consider your whole life as the course. Books and texts may be valuable, inspirational, and wonderful, but lack the authority of a voice, or a harmony of voices echoing within the lineage. In the tradition we are more interested in actors than their agents and representatives.
The means of obtaining knowledge in a tradition is very different from the means used by a student in the university, and more similar to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Not by attending lectures, workshops, and study of texts, but it is by serving the guru and the family, i.e., the lineage, that one comes in contact and absorbs the knowledge and authority of the tradition itself. The disciple begins to see his body as a limb of the lineage. A frequent line in Tantric texts is, “The pleased guru says….” This implies that one must please the guru, which distinguishes “guru seva,” which means apprenticeship, from “(nishkam) karma yoga,” which is service without attachment to the results. Guru seva requires a result, which is that the guru becomes pleased.
By service, which is the nature of apprenticeship, one slowly absorbs the tradition until one becomes part of that tradition and obtains the authority to pass it on.
The cost of this discipleship is considerably higher than the most expensive weekend retreat or a 6 week yoga teacher training. One pays for this with one’s life, as we say in the tradition, with one’s “man, dhan, tan,” body, mind, and resources.
The goal of the guru is NOT to make disciples, but to make gurus. Most gurus in traditions will tell you that disciples are nothing but trouble, in the same tone of a frustrated parent with a naughty child. Disciples don’t pass on the tradition, they must become gurus first.
In the Oral Tradition, the guru is not the teacher, there are MANY teachers. The guru provides this access as the patron of the disciple. The guru is not a psychiatrist, but more the parent with an agenda for the child, sometimes comforting, other times scolding. The guru is not an example, but a guide. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is an expression used in countless guru stories, and an expression I have heard many times during my own discipleship.
Besides being the Door Guardian and the Mentor, the guru is also the Shape Shifter, a mercurial being capable of great change, appearing in different ways to the disciple, causing the disciple confusion as to who this person really is. What is written in a book doesn’t change. The words remain fixed and frozen from the time ink goes on the page. But the guru is dealing with a particular context that is always in a state of flux, as is the world. So his words will change to meet the context of the moment. This is what keeps a tradition dynamic and relevant.
What I have written above is a very specific application of the word, “guru,” and not meant as an ideal that we should aspire to. But we should know that this is how we think of guru in an “exotic” oral tradition. When we think about what a guru means to us, today, it’s helpful to know where the word is really coming from.
Guru Purnima is a day in which we honor all teachers.